By Todd Ceisner
Dozens of dead bass have washed ashore at Kentucky Lake over the past couple days, raising concerns over fish care at the Triton Owners Tournament that took place at Paris Landing State Park last weekend.
Photos of shoreline stretches dotted with bloated bass carcasses started to appear on social media on Monday and one longtime Kentucky Lake guide who saw the fish himself says it’s the worst delayed mortality event he’s witnessed.
“I’ve never seen such a huge bass kill on this lake,” said Sam Lashlee, who saw dozens of dead fish Monday morning and another group of them in the afternoon. “It was sickening.”
When reached by phone, an official with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) told BassFan on Tuesday that an investigation had not been launched and it was unlikely one would be.
The nearly 400-boat Triton Owners Tournament took place last Friday and Saturday and 1,924 bass were weighed in with 1,881 released alive, according to the official standings posted on the website of American Bass Anglers (ABA), which has assisted Triton in operating the owners event for the past 16 years.
Morris Sheehan, president and owner of ABA, told BassFan on Tuesday that he had seen the photos and resulting discussion on Facebook. He acknowledged the potential for delayed mortality in an event the size of the Triton tournament, but that his organization followed all of the usual protocols when it came to fish care.
“Our procedure is we have two live-release boats equipped with oxygen bottles and recirculation pumps in the tanks,” he said. “We attempted to fizz the fish that came to us belly-up – a lot of them we can save by doing that.”
Sheehan said two representatives from the TWRA were present for the duration of the tournament and assisted with fish care both days. Three ABA staffers also assisted with fish care.
“The total weigh-in time was 2 hours, 10 minutes,” Sheehan said. “It’s usually around 3 hours, but we tried to be expeditious with the weigh-in time.”
The 50-boat flights were staggered every 15 minutes and Sheehan said only 30 weigh-in bags were distributed at any one time to limit the number of fish being transported or confined to a bag in a holding tank.
Lashlee suspects the rough-water conditions on Saturday contributed to some of the delayed mortality.
“What I think happened was on the last day of the tournament, there were 4- and 5-foot waves everywhere on the lake,” Lashlee said. “These deep-water fish are very fragile and a 5- to 10-mile run with those stressed fish in a livewell – that’s going to kill a few. A 10- to 20-mile run in those waves is not like on other lakes. You can’t get into a cadence and roll over them. They’re coming from everywhere.
“I was on the lake that day. It was brutal. It’s a very unfortunate situation that happened. I’m sure Triton and the ABA did all they could to keep them alive. They have a good track record, however, this was the perfect storm for something disastrous to happen.”
Amanda McCabe said she counted 43 dead bass on the shore Monday where she took this photo.
Lashlee said the fish that he saw Monday morning had been cleaned up, but he counted another 33 when he came back to the ramp in the afternoon.
“We have to find a way to protect the bass on this lake,” Lashlee added. “I hate that it happened. I make a living on this lake. It’s a natural resource that people in this area treasure and we have to find a way to prevent this from happening.”
Andy Salmon is a local tournament fisherman and school teacher who coaches a local high school’s bass club. He was on the water Monday for some fun fishing with his nephew and a friend when he made the grim discovery.
“We saw a couple in the marina, but that’s typical for a Monday after the weekend tournaments,” he said. “After we got out past the sea wall, we saw a boat just doing circles and we thought it was weird. That’s when we saw the fish floating in the lake. The wind had blown some fish up against the riprap. There were a lot of fish down there.”
He estimated most of the fish to be in the 3- to 6-pound range. He snapped a couple photos with his phone and posted one to Facebook. After turning his phone off, he later discovered the photo had gone viral and touched off a flood of comments.
“I have a degree in wildlife biology and I’m 100 percent sure they were bass,” Salmon said. “It’s not Triton’s fault and I don’t think it’s ABA’s fault. It’s everyone’s fault the way I see it. Kentucky Lake is a special place. It’s why they can draw 400 boats to a tournament. Everybody’s heard of it. Everybody wants to come here, but these tournaments come at a cost.
“At what scale is the cost acceptable? There are a lot of questions there.”
With his background, Salmon said he’s read plenty of research about delayed mortality of bass and that while this timeframe on the calendar offers some of the best fishing of the year, “it’s also some of the most physiologically taxing weeks on the fish of the whole year.”
Lashlee suggested moving the tournament to some time in April when most of the fish are still shallow or lobby Triton to institute a 3-fish limit. Sheehan said any changes to the tournament structure would be Triton’s decision.
“It’s up to Triton to change the format,” he said. “They’ve held this event the last 16 years. This is the first time anything like this has ever happened. It was an unfortunate set of circumstances.”